Punch drunk: how a museum took on an old pub and ended up on the ropes

In this article for Building Design (published on 9 May) Will Palin looks at lessons to be learned from Hackney’s shock refusal of Chipperfield’s Geffrye Museum extension.

At a dramatic meeting on Wednesday 1 May, members of Hackney Planning Committee refused an application for a new museum extension. This would have been a surprising thing in any circumstances, but seemed all the more extraordinary given that the scheme in question was an £18m project with Sir David Chipperfield as its architect. So how did this starry building project turn so sour?

An important clue to understanding what went wrong can found in the reaction of the museum and its architect to Wednesday’s decision. In a series of angry statements the blame was pinned on ‘naive’ councillors and rabid conservationists. There was no soul-searching, no self-analysis, no sense of mea culpa. The comments reflect something that has coloured this whole case – a sense that the applicant and Chipperfield simply lost touch with the public.

It is understandable, and is to be expected, that there are some architects who will always defend other architects and who will react angrily when any grand projectis scuppered. Some of the comments posted on the BD article were positively brimming with vitriol against the opponents to the Chipperfield’s scheme. Yet, these views were not representative, and outside the architectural sphere reaction was very different. Comments on the hugely popular Spitalfields Life blog, which had followed the story for many months, were jubilant. There was relief at the refusal of a scheme which was perceived to be ugly and damaging, and which had been imposed on a community in a high-handed and arrogant way.

So here is the first lesson – ultimately, any scheme which is justified on public benefit, and is being funded by the Lottery (in this case to the tune of £11m), needs popular support. This scheme simply didn’t have that support. The museum believed that its project was right and good and with that certainty came a sense of entitlement, entitlement both to funding and to support from the council. Massive opposition to the demolition of the Marquis of Lansdowne pub was disregarded and little effort was made to engage the public. There was no public exhibition of the designs until after the application was submitted, and advice from heritage groups such as the Victorian Society, SAVE and the Spitalfields Trust was just ignored. This blinkered approach culminated in Wednesday’s momentous planning meeting where the applicant and architect completely failed to charm, engage or persuade the committee.

The other problem, which even many supporters of the scheme realised, was that Chipperfield’s design just didn’t set the world alight. This was not entirely the fault of the architect who, in working with the 1998 Nigel Coates building, was faced with extending the un-extendable. It meant the visuals for the Chipperfield scheme were still dominated by Coates’s distinctive and self-contained horseshoe-shaped building – with no sense of connection between the two schemes.

However, the biggest flaw in Chipperfield’s design was the weak treatment of the corner site. The plot occupied by the demolished pub was to become part roadway and part new restaurant – the latter looking, regrettably, like a soggy shoebox with a window cut in the side.

Even ignoring the heritage issues, the pub simply worked better as a piece of urban planning, it faced two streets and tied the environs of the site together. Without it the site looked disjointed and the streetscape felt cold. If the design had been stronger – bolder – there is just a chance that the loss of the pub could have been overcome. But the museum’s obsession with putting an entrance at this corner, combined with the architect’s dismal failure to appreciate, or relate to, the urban context gave it no chance. On the renderings, the mocked-up view showing the pub retained simply looked better, richer and happier.

So how was it the museum didn’t see this? Its downfall, once again, was its insularity – its failure to invite a range of views or attempt to understand or connect with public sentiment. In contrast, the local and national opposition rallied itself quickly and effectively on social media. The Save the Marquis campaign was co-ordinated by a group of young, articulate, media-savvy locals – people who shared a love of, and connection with, the locality.

The historical research on the pub (which the museum had failed to carry out) was gathered and published on the Spitalfields Life blog in a series of powerful articles. The results were extraordinary – within a few months there were over 2000 names on the online petition against demolition, together with hundreds of comments expressing disbelief at the proposals. The story was picked up by the press and the body of objectors grew. When the museum refused outright the offer from the Spitalfields Trust to buy and restore the pub, its isolation from the community only increased.

In essence, the Geffrye has been taught a lesson that architects often learn to their cost – that if they do not bother to step outside their world, if they do not explore context, if they fail to listen to ‘ordinary people’, they can lose the trust of the very communities whose environments they want to improve. This nurturing of trust is even more important when, as in the case of Chipperfield at the Geffrye, it is the public who is paying your fees.

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